The shores of Lake Erie conjure up a wide variety of mental images, from the Cuyahoga River catching on fire multiple times in the mid-20th century, to wide swaths of fish kill washing up on the beaches to now where there are stand-up paddlers, to kids swimming on the shores and building sand castles. The Lake Erie coastline and health of the waters have drastically improved thanks to heavy investment, progressive research on water quality, and policy implementation – all with the aim to improve the health of Lake Erie and the Lake Erie shoreline.
The Great Lakes hold roughly 20% of the world’s freshwater resources. We realize the important asset we have right in our backyard. River fires aside, we are now also beginning to understand the great responsibility we have in managing our assets well into the future. This will be a great challenge, however, as Lake Erie is one of the most stressed of the Great Lakes. The University of Michigan’s Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project shows the challenges we’re up against. This map shows 34 of 50 stressors, from nitrogen loading to invasive mussels. Things like rising temperatures, decreasing ice cover, and the increase of harmful algal blooms exacerbate the cumulative stress.
Despite continued investment in local restoration activities, the stresses and resultant consequences (such as harmful algal blooms) remain persistent and ever-present. Speaking with state representatives recently, the frustration in the room was palpable; money seems to keep pouring into the Lake with investments, but we’re still dealing with the same problems we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. It’s clear that a new approach is needed. Through the fellowship with the Cleveland Water Alliance; in partnership with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Office of Coastal Management; and Biohabitats, we’re taking measurable steps to move from local acts of restoration to a holistic approach to systematically linking the projects on a broader scale to leverage each individual project and deepen the impact of investment.
Last week, in partnership with the Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs and members of the Resilience Alliance, along with a range of stakeholders from government representatives to utilities to fishery managers, and academics, we undertook a two-day full Lake Erie coastline resilience assessment. The method involves analytically understanding parts of the system and constructing conceptual models to start identifying thresholds, feedback loops, and variables that can either undermine or contribute to the system’s general resilience.
A main element to start these discussions is understanding and identifying the scale. This is not an easy concept to nail down, particularly when we’re dealing with non-linear, constantly dynamic systems that don’t care about our political or administrative boundaries. Yet, we need to come up with a spatial scale so that our brains can both wrap our heads around the issues, as well as how it fits into our political and administrative boundaries (while still being aware of scales above and below our focal system, as well as also staying aware of cross-temporal scales). The aim is not to come up with immediate solutions, but to start thinking differently – systemically, and across boundaries, and continuously iterate the conceptual models and integrate the outcomes and/ knowledge outputs into policy – so that collectively, we can manage uncertainty and inevitable changes to Lake Erie.Dr. Allyson Quinlan of the Resilience Alliance discussing conceptual models and feedback loops.
This workshop took place over two days in Cleveland, Ohio. During those two days – at the end of September and officially in the fall season, we broke a heat record with 90F temperatures. Multiple area schools closed down for a day, while others dismissed early because of excessive heat. With that backdrop to the discussion, it only solidified that we need to find an alternative path forward in our new climate reality if we are to be stewards and cultivate a healthy Lake Erie for future generations and ourselves.